“The Way of the Saints” by Elizabeth Engelman

Florida resident Elizabeth Engelman enters the ranks of praise-worthy novelists with more than a swirl of mysticism and a great deal of grace in her debut The Way of the Saints (Southeast Missouri State University, 2021). Her book is a compelling story of three generations of a Puerto Rican family struggling to survive cultural, historical, and personal turmoil. The work won the Nilsen Prize for a First Novel.

Written as inter-related stories that can be read as a multi-generational novel or a collection of short stories, the book reflects the author’s own life and that of her family. Her webpage indicates that Engelman, who now lives in north Florida, is the daughter of a Santeria priestess, as is one of her main characters. As such, readers should expect—and will not be disappointed—to find a good deal of Santeria involved in the plot lines and descriptions.

The diverse stories, varied settings, and multiple characters all have their riveting moments, but one of the stand-out qualities about The Way of the Saints is the sheer richness and beauty of its language. This is an eloquently written book, with gorgeous descriptive passages. Engelman, a poet, has such stirring and evocative sentences as this one: “Still, he felt the click of wings and tongues permeating his ears when he slept.” Or this one, which wraps the novel’s prevalent mysticism with simple, yet powerful, language: “She was a slave trader with the dead.”

Though the stories start with a boy, the young Rosendo, the dominant characters are three generations of Puerto Rican women: Paula, Isabel, and Esther. Isabel is Paula’s daughter and Esther’s mother. Through these three, the author takes readers into Puerto Rico’s Independence movement, the harsh poverty of life in New York tenements, a trip to Cuba, and ultimately a prosperity that has its own bitterness. Through it all, the family wrestles with dysfunction, rape, abuses, and Isabel’s involvement with Santeria. Her struggle between the pull of Christianity and Santeria is captured in one precise sentence: “[Isabel] slept with headphones on, listening to a continuous loop of Southern gospel preaching to keep out the rum-thickened voices of her ancestors.”

The patriarch of the family, Rosendo, suffered in chapter one when his stepfather sells him in 1923 Puerto Rico to an “espiritismo” who “would have paid more if not for the bruises and burn marks on Rosendo’s skin.” From that rather fierce introduction, the book leaps to Lower East Side Manhattan in 1974 when a young pregnant woman, Isabel, visits a Santeria high priest known as a babalawo, “and a father of secrets.” Having suffered three miscarriages already, Isabel is determined to save the child she now carries—and desperate enough to forsake her mother’s condemnation of the babalawo. However, he soon tells her “You’re in danger,…you’re cursed.”

Isabel, readers soon learn, is Rosendo’s daughter. In the company of the babalawo, she recalls “the explosive snap of her father’s belt,” and that he was a Pentecostal preacher. Such contrasts form a central pattern in the book as the old ways and the new challenge each other, with chapters set in Puerto Rico in the twenties and thirties, and chapters set in New York in more current times. The weaving back forth in time and location requires the readers to pay careful attention—especially as the chapters are not told in chronological order. Yet this approach creates a wonderful tapestry of characters and action. The complexity is part of it vibrancy, and the characters emerge well developed over the course of the book.

Santeria rituals and beliefs are often juxtaposed with Christianity, in keeping with the book’s habit of presenting contrasts and conflicts. For example:

“To cover all of her bases, as instructed by Grandma Paula, [Isabel] rebuked the Egun and each of the orishas in the name of Jesus.

Esther shrugged. “That’s it?” She had anticipated an Exorcist moment, a lightning strike that never came. There was only the sound of running water.

Well versed in both Puerto Rican culture and history—and in the Santeria rituals—The Way of Saints should capture any readers’ attention and hold it to the last, beautiful word. While often bleak, this is still a stunning and beautiful book as Paula, Isabel, and Esther struggle to transcend their own history, as well as the history of their nature land. This is not an easy or light-hearted book, but its harshness and intensity are part of what makes it such a grand read. The lyrical, precise prose in The Way of the Saints raises the story beyond melodrama and into literature.

While this is a debut novel, the author, Elizabeth Engelman, is no stranger to the literary world. She is a recipient of the Marianne Russo Award and a Rotary Ambassadorial Scholar Grant to Ireland, a 2019 top-ten finalist for the University of New Orleans Publishing Lab Prize, and the New York Times and Endeavor Magazine have published her essays. Yale’s literary and art journal, LETTERS, has published her poetry. Engelman earned an MFA from the University of Tampa, an M.A. in Poetry from Lancaster University, and a B.A. from Carson-Newman University.

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